Team Penske quartet completes critical test at Sonoma

Photos: Mike Doran/Sonoma Raceway
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Team Penske will have an extra day of data and running in its pocket going into next week’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Sunday, Sept. 17, 6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), following today’s test at Sonoma Raceway.

The release from the track is below.

Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power completed a one-day test session at Sonoma Raceway on Thursday to prepare for the Verizon IndyCar Series championship race weekend at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, Sept. 15-17.

This marks a particularly important test session for the Team Penske drivers, as all four are in championship contention. Newgarden (560 points) leads the point standings by a slim three points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon with teammates Castroneves (538), defending series champion Pagenaud (526) and 2014 series champion Power (492) also within reach of the championship.

“We’re in a good position with the points lead, but it’s not anything secure,” said Newgarden. “We’ve got to have a good weekend here and I think having a test day like today is always helpful. What we learned today we want to apply to the race weekend. Team Penske has always been strong here, so we’ve got to execute on that.”

Despite wet conditions on Thursday morning, the drivers were able to get on track at noon and complete approximately five hours of testing throughout the afternoon.

“It was a little bit misty this morning and a little bit cooler, so we didn’t start right away, but at the end of the day the entire Team Penske got a little taste of what it’s going to be like next week and were able to try some interesting things,” said 2008 Sonoma race winner Castroneves. “So, right now, we feel more prepared than ever, but things can always change.”

Double points will be awarded for the season finale, which will mark the 12th consecutive year the IndyCar Series championship has been decided in the final race. With a win, the 26-year-old Tennessean Newgarden would celebrate a first championship in his inaugural year driving for Hall of Fame owner Roger Penske, but that will be no small feat, as the four drivers trailing him each boast at least one win in wine country.

“You can only control so much within the championship,” said Newgarden, who has posted a best finish of sixth in Sonoma. “The only thing we can really do is try to focus on winning the race and do the best job we can with that. If we win the race, we win the championship and for us that’s the best thing, that we control our own destiny.”

Kyle Busch interests McLaren for Indy 500, but team is leaning toward experience

McLaren Indy Kyle Busch
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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With Arrow McLaren SP heavily weighing a fourth car for the Indy 500 next year, Kyle Busch is a candidate but not at the top of the IndyCar team’s list.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown addressed the possibility Wednesday morning during a video news conference with Gavin Ward, the team’s newly named racing director.

“I have not personally spoken with Kyle Busch, but you can read into that that someone else in our organization has,” Brown said. “We want to make sure if we run a fourth car, we’re in the mindset that we want someone that is experienced around the 500. It’s such an important race, and from a going for the championship point of view, we’ve got three drivers that we want to have finish as strong as possible, so if we ran a fourth car, we’d want to be additive, not only for the fourth car itself, but to the three cars and so bringing in someone who’s not done it before potentially doesn’t add that value from an experience point of view.”

Busch will race the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing next season in NASCAR under a new deal that will allow the two-time Cup Series champion to make his Indy 500 debut. Busch, who had a previous deal to run the Indy 500 nixed by Joe Gibbs Racing, openly courted Chevy IndyCar teams to contact him during his introductory news conference with RCR last month.

After Team Penske (which has given no indications of a fourth car at Indy alongside champion Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), McLaren is the second-best Chevy organization, and it’s fielded an extra Indy 500 car the past two years for Juan Pablo Montoya. The Associated Press reported last month that McLaren was in “serious conversation” about running Busch at Indy with Menards sponsorship.

But with its restructured management, the team is in the midst of significant expansion for 2023. AMSP is adding a third full-time car for 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi to team with Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, and a massive new shop also is being built in the Indianapolis area.

“(It’s) not because of him but purely because of experience,” Brown said of Busch. “He’s an awesome talent and would be huge, huge news for the speedway. But yeah, I think everyone is under consideration if we decide to do it, but experience is right at the top of the list as far as what’s going to be the most important to us.”

And it seems likely there will be a veteran joining Rossi, O’Ward and Rosenqvist at the Brickyard.

“A fourth car at the 500 is very much under consideration,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t even want to get ahead of ourselves, but we wouldn’t be ruling out a fourth car in the future on a full-time basis. That definitely wouldn’t be for ’23. But as we expand the team and get into larger facilities and things of that nature, it’s something that Gavin and I have spoken about.

“I think we would be in a position to run a fourth car at the 500 this upcoming year. If we do decide to do that, we’ll make that decision soon for maximum preparation, and I would say we’re open minded to a fourth car in ’24 and beyond and probably will make that decision middle of next year in time to be prepared if we did decide to do that.”

Brown also addressed the future of Alex Palou, who will be racing for Chip Ganassi Racing next season after also signing a deal with McLaren. Though Brown declined to get into specifics about whether Palou had signed a new deal, he confirmed Palou will continue to test “our Formula One car from time to time.

“Everyone has reached an amicable solution,” Brown said. “We’ve now had Alex in our Formula One car as we have Pato. That will continue in the future, which we’re quite excited about. At this point we’re laser-focused on 2023 and glad to have the noise behind us and now just want to put our head down and get on with the job with the three drivers we have.”